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Gargano on Fire

Anne Robichaud

As the summer heat creeps in, thoughts turn to the August holidays (when most Italians will have a month holiday). We're not yet sure of this year's August destination, but it's time now for me to fine-tune what I wrote about our memorable last August holiday. Here it is:

"... over one hundred fires burning now in Italy ... 19,000 hectares (NB 28,000 acres approximately) have burned this year in Italy --- 70% more forest fires than this time last year ... this summer, 12,000 calls have been made to fire departments all over the country ... the Messina fire starts up again ... two shepherds in jail for having started the Messina fire (and) ... Valeria leaves the hospital today to attend the funeral of her daughter Lucia (NB - both in the Messina fire) ... Sermoneta in Lazio is burning ... over 60 dead in Greece as the government offers a reward of 1,000,000 Euro to anyone providing information on the source of the fires".
Snatches taken from the morning news, Radio Rai Uno at 8 a.m, August 29 and 30, 2007.

The Mediterranean burns as temperatures soar once again to over 100 F. Pino and I witnessed the devastating results of the first of Italy's major fires during our mid-August motorcycle trip around the Gargano peninsula in Puglia, the "spur of the boot". On July 24th, fire had raged in the pine and cypress woods encircling the magnificent Baia di S. Nicola (the Bay of St. Nicholas). The bay lies just below Peschici, a white stuccoed Gargano hilltop town perched on a rocky outcrop, 100 meters above the Adriatic and dominating beaches of fine white sand that stretch into aquamarine waters.

We headed to Gargano following the Adriatic coast south from the Marches region into Abruzzo, stopping for a couple days in Vasto and Termoli, Abruzzo seaside towns. On we continued into the Gargano peninsula, passing the coastal lakes of Lesina, and then Vargano, and climbing to Rodi Garganico, a seaside town perched serenely on a promontory, securely protected by a mirculous image of the Madonna, which arrived there in the 15th century. Aquamarine waters on one side, thick Mediterranean vegetation on the other.

Peschici

The road swooped and twisted and then we knew we were near the fated Peschici: the Mediterranean vegetation replaced by burnt forests, and the acrid smell of smoke still clinging to the air, nearly a month after the fire. At one time, the turquoise waters of the Adriatic peeped through the deep greens of the Mediterranean vegetation rolling down to the water. Now the colors of the sea glare in stark contrast to the blackened earth and the skeleton-like black branches of the burnt trees on the bare rocky hills. Over a hundred cars burned that day in late July. They have been hauled away, but here and there, discarded blackened farm equipment and piles of burnt rubble remain.

Four hundred hectares (about 800 acres) of coastal forests - about half of the area is private property, the other half is forests of the Parco Nazionale del Gargano - were devoured by a fire which raged for hours, whipped to a fury by the hot scirocco wind. The scirocco blows from Africa and if rain follows the passage of this wind (even here in Umbria in central Italy) our cars stream with Sahara sand, and the desert sand dries mottled on windshields. We all remember the intense heat of the dry scirocco winds which blew in late July.

Bosco Bruciato

We rode in subdued silence, stopping now and then to take a photo or two. However, no visual image could capture the sadness felt at witnessing this painful flagellation of natural wonders. The woods of the Gargano peninsula had evolved naturally over the centuries, without human intervention, forming an immense mantle of 22,000 acres of linden, beech, chestnut, pines, laurel, maples, and cedars over the highest point of Gargano, the center of the peninsula. Over 1/3 of the treasured woods - or 800 acres - were devoured by the July fire.

Peschici Bruciata

The road into Peschici serpentined along the rocky cliffs, bordered on both sides by blackened earth and charcoal trees whose branches seemed to try desperately to hook on to the sky. On the coastal side, the stark black met the aquamarine colors of the sea.

The cause of the fire is still not clear. The fire burned down to the water and hundreds of tourists in resorts or campgrounds at the Baia di San Nicola - and in other coves of stunning beauty lining the coast of Peschici - took refuge in the water and were evacuated by rescue boats and by scores of volunteers in private boats and rafts.

Vicolo Peschici

In Peschici, we booked into a lovely family-run hotel, Albergo Celestina, right on the small piazza which is the heart and hub of the town. Celestina no longer cooks up seafood feasts and welcomes guests, but her grand-daughter Victoria does. Just across from the hotel, we enjoyed a robust Gargano red wine, a primitivo, with sharp local pecorino (sheep's milk cheese) at a small wine cellar built right into the medieval town wall. Afterwards, we headed to the ruins of the 12th-century Norman castle, following the narrow cobbled narrow backstreets characteristically twisting and curving as is typical of a Mediterranean seaside town: 15th-century urban planning designed to foil invading Saracen pirates from the Turkish coasts.

On white stuccoed houses, window boxes of bright red geraniums and fuchsia petunias splashed colors in the alleyways, as did wooden chairs in front of some houses, cane-seated and painted in various colors. The chairs were empty in the heat of the day, but chatting old women occcupied them in the evenings, while their grandchildren played at their feet. We had dinner on our first night at our hotel, eating on the terrace, overlooking the sea. Our room, too, had a terrace with sea views.

Gargano Coast

The next day, we booked the boat ride all along the coast from Peschici to Vieste, and the extent of the fire damage was even more evident when seen from the sea. Coves which would have been crowded in August with vacationers, sprouted a few umbrellas, blackened trees climbing blackened cliffs behind them. The boat sidled into the extraordinary grottoes which stud the coast, one with a ceiling like a church cupola and so perfectly rounded that it is called "la campana" (the bell). Our boat pulled into a splendid bay for a pause and we swam off the rocky promontory in emerald waters, the blackened cliffsides only accentuating the green sea.

Peschici Bruciata 2

August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption, is a national holiday in Italy and families traditionally gather together for all-afternoon massive banquet lunches. We thought it might be the perfect day to head to the sea, with beaches less crowded. We rode the motorcycle from Peschici towards Vieste, following the blackened coastline, and pulled off the road at a sign to a restaurant called "La Punta". Located at the tip of a promontory, La Punta had survived, but the Gargano fire had burned right up to the cement patio wrapping around the restaurant. A large dining area on one side of the restaurant was closed off and 5 or 6 tables were set on the opposite side, on the patio overlooking the sea and the 15th-century guard tower. We asked about the lunch menu, booked a table and headed off to the nearby cove for a pre-lunch swim in the emerald water. The path wound down to the cove over charred earth and between burnt trees with pathetic branches reaching out in desperate skeletal black forms.

Tutta la famiglia

After our swim, we walked back up to La Punta and met jovial Signor Trigiani, father of owner Stefania who later served us the seafood wonders and Pugliese specialties cooked by her husband chef, Sergio. Ilenia, age 13, helped her mother serve, and her brother Francesco, 8, brought us drinks and then coffee - and entertained us with his chatter. The children were backed up by their aunts Maria Michela (doctor) and Ilma (living now in northern Italy) who had given up their August 15th holiday to help their sister and brother-in-law at the restaurant. Stefania's mother, Signora Trigiani, was sous-chef to her son-in-law in the kitchen. Family now replaces the personnel which Stefania and Sergio had to reluctantly release after the July fire.

Albergo con Bruciato

The campground next door had hosted about 2000 people in August, many of whom ate dinner at La Punta at some point during their stay. Fire devastated it and capacity there has been halved. Stefania and Sergio had had to let all staff go. "We used to serve more than 150 people in the evening. We've now closed down the open-air dining room - and just fill these few tables on the patio."

I asked Stefania about the fire. "The wind started off shore and then switched, blowing towards the sea. It was a furious scirocco. The fire flew here from Peschici in less than 45 minutes. The resin of the pines and cypress trees created a dense black smoke. We never thought it would reach us. But it did. We were evacuated by boat which docked at the tip of the promontory." Francesco added, "We went to the boat covered in wet towels." Then he showed us the outdoor lights above the doorways from patio into the kitchen: huge balls which had deflated when the fire melted them. The extremities of the beams of the gazebo, which shades the patio, had singed but the structure was saved.

Mangia Pesce a Vieste

The other tables emptied and Pino and I stayed and talked with Stefania and her family. Yes, the landscape in front of us was blackened but the seacoast on all sides was translucently majestic. Stefania asked us where we were staying. We told her about our Peschici hotel. "If you want to stay here on the coast", she said, "I can rent you one of the rooms in the back usually used by our staff during the summer season ... it is nothing special, but, I can offer you a good price."

We walked around the back and ended up staying there for our last two nights on Gargano. The price was right: 80 Euro per night for a double room with a superb seafood dinner for two on the patio over the sea. Breakfast on the patio each morning was included, too - the Gargano translucent sea all around us. Admittedly, the bathroom was outside the room - but for our use only.

Vieste

We agreed to come the next day and then returned to our Peschici hotel that night. We walked up to the ruins of Peschici's feudal castle before our dinner in a back street and then strolled the town's winding streets.

The next morning, we packed our few belongings on the motorcycle and rode out of Peschici and along the blackened coast back to La Punta to drop off our belongings. We then headed on to Vieste, leaving behind fire damage shortly as the fire had been tamed about 10 kilometers short of Vieste. Vieste is another pristinely white Gargano coastal town of narrow, winding streets, slithering between white stuccoed houses, washes strung out over the alleys, adding color to the urban scene. Vespas are parked here and there in the alleyways. After seafood chowder and the famous orange/ricotta cake at the grotto-like Enoteca Vesta, we walked down steep stairs outside the walls of the town to swim in the cove below. When the sun started to slide into the sea, we mounted the motorcycle and headed back to La Punta.

Bruciato con Torre

 

I loved our lodgings there: our simple room had a tiny window looking out at the 15th-century guard tower at the tip of the promontory, built for defense of the coast against the Saracen pirates. A trabuco stretched out its long neck over the sea, just behind the tower. The trabuchi (called trabocchi along the Abruzzo seacoast) are wooden crane-like structures built by fisherman for the lowering of huge nets into the sea below. Ingenious structures of ancient origin, the remaining trabuchi are jealously preserved as national historic monuments.

Vieste

 

We walked out to the trabuco that evening just after a swim off the seacliffs. We met Michele, ricalcitrant fisherman, eyes squinting as he leaned on the railing, smoking, gazing out over the sea. A man of few words. He lived there alone in a small shack attached to the trabuco which his father had built. The door of the shack was open and furnishings were meager: a cot, a chair and on the table, small models of trabuchi which Michele builds as a hobby. He showed them to us with pride. We stood with him at the railing and talked about the trabuchi and the solitary life of the fishermen who had built them and used them. The trabuco net was down now (i.e., lowered into the sea). "Not many fish these days, though ... pazienza", he said with a shrug.

Pescatore e modello

Our last day on the Gargano peninsula, we put on our masks and snorkels and swam at sunset off the rocks below the trabuco. We could see mussels in endless clusters clinging to the rocky coast below us. After our swim, Pino headed back up for a prosecco on the patio and I remained on the promontory to photograph the guard tower and the trabuco. I then turned my back to the sea to photograph La Punta - surrounded by blackened earth and skeletal black trees.

 

As I walked back up to our seaside "hotel", I stopped at a charred pine tree. From a distance, it had seemed to have orange ornaments on it. They were the tree's pine cones. Orange hearts had survived. I picked one to take home as a souvenir.


Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2008. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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